A man, a plan, a canal – Panama
Perhaps the title should read ‘many men, multiple plans, finally a canal – in Panama’ (though it somewhat ruins the palindrome). All I knew of the Panama Canal was that it was a canal in Panama. I win no prizes for knowing that. A birthday gift of Graham Greene’s The Captain and the Enemy, partly set in Panama, got me to wondering about the canal’s history and how the link between two of the world’s great oceans came about.
Work began on the canal in 1881, after the success of another project at Suez. Its opening in 1914 would have been a celebration of human endeavour over the environment if it wasn’t for the First World War igniting in Europe only 18 days before. At 48 miles long, the Panama Canal is half the length of the Suez Canal, but took four times longer to construct.
Maybe Panama’s wacky geography confused the canal’s designers. Despite separating the Atlantic in the east from the Pacific to the west, the canal runs more or less west from the Atlantic, along a north-south axis. And although the canal divides Panama into two halves, it only came under the control of Panama’s government in 1999, belonging previously to the United States.
Whichever cardinal compass point is the correct one, on opening on 15th August 1914 the canal halved the sailing time to the U.S west coast and Pacific nations, avoiding the need to sail around the tip of the South American continent. It made these trading areas more accessible, opening up China and Japan for those little bits of plastic we know we can’t do without.
A canal across the narrow stretch of Panamanian land was first envisaged in 1534 by the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V as he sought a better route to Peru. However, the first transcontinental crossing was a rail line. The canal follows much of the same route, making use of the levelling and cutting activity necessary for the laying of tracks. On its Atlantic side the canal makes use of Gatun Lake, before taking a path that winds around spits of land towards the Pacific. It takes a ship between 8-10 hours to change oceans. Although waiting times can increase the crossing time to 20-30 hours, it’s still a massive improvement on the time required to circumnavigate south America instead.